Happy Anniversary, Mastery Charter Schools!

Happy Anniversary, Mastery Charter Schools. Congratulations!

To celebrate our 15th anniversary, we held a banquet and fundraiser to recognize  our service of and partnership with Philly kids, families, and communities. Initially, I wasn’t going to attend. Admittedly, I am an introvert by nature, and the thought of being in a hall full of people doesn’t usually make it to the top of my priority list.

I went for three reasons. One, I believe in our work. Our teachers and staff are doing an amazing job despite the political backdrop that pits our mayor, governor, and teachers’ union against mostly Black and Latino communities that are asking, nay demanding, school choice and opportunity.

Secondly, despite a constant drum beat of anti-charter rhetoric, Black families consistently choose us for their children. 96% of our students return, and more and more siblings attend as their families’ school of choice. In our district, approximately 30% of the families choose the traditional public schools in our neighborhoods. The rest look for quality options like Mastery Charter. We play an important role in families realizing school choice.

Despite tone deaf stances of the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, who want to place a moratorium on charter schools, 70% of Black parents support more parental choice options, such as high-quality traditional public, public charter, and scholarship programs. Furthermore, at 72%, low-income parents, especially, support charter schools as they offer quality options to communities that need them.

Our school community- Parents, Students & staff- have built something special

Although this is only my 9th year as principal at Mastery, there are staff members who have worked at Shoemaker since the very beginning (11 years). At the beginning, when bars were on the principal’s window and three police officers guarded the halls filled with two hundred students, these staff members partnered with this community to build something very special.  And they’re still at it.

At Shoemaker, we are working on the sendoff for our 7th graduating class. The previous six classes have earned more than $25,000,000 in scholarships. 100% of them are accepted to college, and 80% are accepted to 4-year institutions. 80% of our students also report to their respective colleges on day one. We are still working to address the summer melt, but our school community believes we are at a great starting point.

I don’t mention this to brag, because I know that we have far too much to improve upon to rest on our laurels. As Jim Collins says, “Good is the enemy to great.” And, our community deserves great.

Lastly, I attended because I was given the honor of introducing our teachers of the year at our 15th anniversary banquet. My remarks to our teachers and to other members of the audience are below.

Good is the enemy of great and our community deserves great

Good evening, my name is Sharif El-Mekki, and I’ve been the Principal at the Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus since 2008.

Shoemaker was once the 2nd most violent middle school in Pennsylvania.  Last year, as a 7th-12th grade school, serving around 800 students, 80% of my seniors enrolled directly in college after graduation.  We are a nationally recognized example of what school turnarounds can mean for young people and for communities.

 As a school leader, this work is not possible without having amazing teachers in every classroom, every day.  There’s a reason that I remember every last one of my elementary school teachers and very few of my high school teachers. Our best teachers remind me of my own high performing and life-impacting teachers in Iran and at Nidhamu Sasa.

And, while some people argue the purposes of education: helping students become active and responsible citizens or prepare for life after K-12 (post-secondary or work), we realize it is a silly debate. As Dr Martin Luther King clearly stated at Morehouse College in 1948, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals. … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”  There is no democracy without justice and the lack of quality school choice is unjust.

Every year is the “year of the teacher”

We know that leaders acknowledge outside-of-school factors, yet intensely look to impact what is within their locus of control. Schools cannot necessarily directly make an impact on poverty, segregated housing, etc.; however, school leaders (should) have a direct impact on who is in front of students. In relation to other school factors, nothing else is more important than the effectiveness of classroom teachers.  We know that with great teachers, we can influence life choices of students and can assist them in liberating themselves from a variety of oppressive structures and systems.

A few years ago, researches from Harvard and Columbia did a comprehensive study on the impact of teachers. These researchers tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years from a large urban school district from 4th grade to adulthood, making it one of the largest and most consequential educational studies in recent years.

Besides the immediate academic gains, they concluded that “students assigned to higher performing teachers are more successful in many dimensions. They are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, make a positive impact on their neighborhoods, and save more for retirement. They are also less likely to have children as teenagers.”

The effect of a good teacher on a child’s life is monumental. In financial terms, the study notes that replacing a teacher who performs in the bottom 5% range with a teacher of just average quality would generate lifetime earnings gains worth more than $250,000 for the average classroom.

On the other hand, “If you leave a low performing teacher in a school for 10 years, rather than replacing him or her with an average teacher, you are hypothetically talking about $2.5 million in lost income for those same students.”

We know that having a single great teacher isn’t enough. The effect of having an ineffective teacher can undermine the best efforts of great teachers the following year. Conversely, the impact of a great teacher can be wasted by a poorly performing teacher in subsequent years. At Mastery, we know this, and it is why so much is invested in supporting and retaining top talent. We know that our students deserve an ecosystem that supports and sustains the super hero efforts of our best educators.

“Don’t say, ‘I’m just a teacher.’ That’s like Clark Kent saying, ‘I’m just superman’.”

That’s why we remind our teachers, “Don’t say, ‘I’m just a teacher.’ That’s like Clark Kent saying, ‘I’m just superman’.”

We ask our teachers to embrace their seismic shifting roles and to acknowledge that the thousands of decisions they make daily are some of the most important decisions adults make about children and their future. And, for that, we salute and honor our teachers. Teachers, like Zachary Wright, who has 1st generation students in college today commenting that they feel so prepared because of Wright and other teachers at Shoemaker.

Most people describe their professions as “not rocket science.” Teaching, however, is rocket science. It is why we must support the efforts of our nation’s teachers.

I want to conclude with a quote from a NY congressman, Hakim Jeffries, that captures your support of our teachers. He says, “…That’s why the struggle has been so necessary and why at the end of the day we’ve got to do all that we can, working in part with the activists [that would be teachers] on the inside to give the African-American community and all others across this country the room to really experience the American Dream and be given some room to breathe.”

This is not only a stance against police brutality, it can also be for great educational opportunities for all students. Systemic oppression and racism supports both police oppression and persistently dangerous and failing schools.

Ultimately, your support of great teachers, including those in charters, who are committed to the cause of Black and Latino children, helps our communities to breathe and prosper.

Cheers to another 15 years, Mastery Charter. Ensure that our students are able to breathe and prosper.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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